For Winston-Salem, NC native John Fleer, books are like little portals into other worlds. From his early years as a novice home cook to today, with two Asheville, North Carolina, restaurants to his name—Rhubarb and Benne on Eagle—Fleer has turned to cookbooks as a way to understand other places and their distinctive cultures. They were paramount as he worked on Benne on Eagle, the second of his restaurants. With chef-of-the-moment Ashleigh Shanti leading the kitchen, it explores the influence of the African diaspora on Appalachian foodways. We asked him to contemplate the shelves and shelves of food books he’s acquired over his career and share with us the ten titles he feels every Southerner should have at home. The sweeping list, which includes a few time-honored tomes on mountain cooking, a cookbook that sings the praises of scratch-made breakfasts, and a culinary historian’s somber dive into his family’s history in slavery, speaks to the power of food across the Southern landscape.
“Cookbooks were my way of finding an anchor in East Tennessee. And I fell in love with what I was learning and the people I was encountering and the type of food I was cooking.”
Where does your interest in cookbooks and food history books come from?
Initially, when I was in college, cookbooks were just a way to learn to feed myself! And to figure out what to do with ingredients I’d come across in the grocery store. For instance, early on I flirted with the idea of being a vegetarian. So I was going to the vegetarian cookbooks of that era, like the Moosewood Cookbook, and teaching myself that style of cooking.
What about once you became a professional chef?
After culinary school, when I ended up at Blackberry [Farm], they were really about trying to gather a depth of knowledge about where I had ended up. Although I was somewhat familiar with Appalachian food in terms of the Southern vernacular, I was still trying to figure out the specifics.
Tell us more about exploring Appalachian food.
I went to culinary school in New York, but I knew I wanted to return to the South. I thought I would end up on the coast, so that’s where my head was. As it turned out, we land- ed on the other side of the Appalachian mountain range. It was as if I just found myself on an alien planet; I really had to figure out where I was. Cookbooks were my way of finding an anchor in the area. And I fell in love with what I was learning and the people I was encountering and the type of food I was cooking.
How do cookbooks still inform you today?
I think all chefs use cookbooks. Our best form of research is travel: experiencing restaurants and what our peers are doing. But you can’t travel all the time—at least, I can’t. Books and cookbooks are a way to travel without actually traveling.
What have you learned from reading old cookbooks?
It’s proof that the history of food isn’t linear; it’s somewhat cyclical. We may run a lot of changes on things, but at the end of the day most of what we cook has been done before, in some form or fashion. And that’s a good thing. We have a cultural foundation for what we’re cooking. Food always has a cultural foundation.
Is a cookbook in your future?
I don’t know! I’ve been approached several times. I really like the function of being in a restaurant and being with my staff. Every friend I have who has written a book says essentially for a year at least you have to divorce yourself from what’s going on in your restaurants. I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to do that.
John Fleer’s Book Picks
THE FOXFIRE BOOK OF APPALACHIAN COOKERY | Dutton, 1984
“You want to talk about landing in the hills of East Tennessee and trying to figure out where you were—this book was mission critical.” With its documentary photos and interviews, the iconic volume—which UNC Press is re-releasing in September—helped the chef understand his new home in the mountain South.
THE GIFT OF SOUTHERN COOKING | Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock | Knopf, 2003
This book, written over seven years by Southern food luminary Edna Lewis, the granddaughter of a former slave, and Scott Peacock, a white chef nearly fifty years her junior, was instrumental in Fleer’s conceptualizing and planning of Benne on Eagle: “It represented where I was as a white man trying to learn and help express the history of African-American cooking.”
SOUTHERN FOOD | John Egerton | UNC Press, 1993
“There’s probably not another book that has been as important to me,” Fleer says of this Southern food bible. “It’s helped me put what I’ve learned into context.” While not a cookbook per se, he’s developed recipes by gleaning information from its pages. “My recipe for pimento cheese was extracted almost exclusively from reading that book,” he says.”
LOUISIANA COOKERY | Mary Land | University Press of Mississippi, 1954
That Louisiana’s contributions to the American food landscape are substantial is something Fleer has long understood. But he didn’t fully grasp the creolized cuisine’s foundations and nuances until stumbling upon this “gem of an old book” in a New Orleans bookstore.
THE COOKING GENE | Michael Twitty | Amistad, 2017
“It tells the story that these other books don’t tell.” That is, the influence of West African food on the South. It’s a connection that underscores every plate at Benne on Eagle. “Once we recognize and acknowledge this history that’s been suppressed for generations, we can create styles of food that are expressive of our shared history.”
VICTUALS | Ronni Lundy | Clarkson Potter, 2016
“She has such a magical way of balancing the historical and the contemporary approach to cooking,” Fleer says of Kentucky-born writer Ronni Lundy. “She understands the necessity of evolution in food. That’s always been my goal in how I cook.”
CLASSIC SOUTHERN COOKING | Damon Fowler | Crown, 1995
Fleer considers this thecookbook version of Edgerton’s prose-centric Southern Food. It traces the roots of some two hundred historic recipes, while also making them accessible to cooks from this century.
SMOKEHOUSE HAM, SPOON BREAD & SCUPPERNONG WINE | Joseph Dabney | Cumberland House, 1998
A good companion to Foxfire— Fleer reckons he references them equally—this book is loaded with recipes and musings about mountain food lore. A passage on sorghum that covers the sweetener’s production and why it was historically used over sugar in the region really captures the essence of Appalachia, Fleer says.
NOT AFRAID OF FLAVOR | Ben and Karen Barker | UNC Press, 2003
Fleer credits Ben and the late Karen Barker of Durham, North Carolina’s Magnolia Grill with inspiring him to enter the restaurant world. The then-graduate student saw the couple telling stories through food. “I thought, ‘That’s not even work!’ When I want to anchor myself, I’ll go back to their books; they’re the touchstones for what I still want to do.”
SOUTHEAST FORAGING | Chris Bennett | Timber Press, 2015
In Fleer’s words: “You gotta know what’s in your woods.” He’s gotten really into foraging since living in Asheville, thanks in part to wild foods evangelist Alan Muskat.
BIG BAD BREAKFAST | John Currence | Ten Speed Press, 2016
“Breakfast is such an important meal in the South,” Fleer says. When he needs to garner inspiration for his restaurants, he turns to this title.
Southern Cooking | Bill Neal | UNC Press, 1999
In the time before celebrity chefs, Bill Neal was the godfather of a generation of Southern cooks. “He did a lot for Southern cooking in general, but what he did for restaurant chefs is immense. He laid the groundwork for those who influenced me—Ben Barker, Frank Stitt, Louis Osteen.”
- by Erin Byers Murray